I heard so many negative things about Steven Spielberg’s latest film, The BFG, that I was really expecting it to be terrible. When it came out this summer, a lot of critics seemed to take an almost perverse delight in talking about its flaws and some people actually seemed to be thrilled over the fact that it flopped at the box office.
And I have to admit that the commercials that I had seen didn’t really fill me with much desire to actually sit through the movie. Mark Rylance looked vaguely grotesque as the giant. Add to that, I spent several months convinced that BFG stood for “Big Fucking Giant.” Once I was reminded that he was actually a Big Friendly Giant, I was kinda like, “But wouldn’t my way be more fun?”
But anyway, I finally watched The BFG last night and it’s actually not terrible. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not great. In many ways, this movie is Spielberg at his most sentimental. Imagine if every triumphant musical cue in Lincoln was stretched out for two hours and you might have an idea as to how he approaches The BFG. At times, I had a hard time following the film’s storyline, largely because the pacing was totally off. As a director, Spielberg never seems to be quite sure if he’s making a film exclusively for kids or if he’s trying to make a film that adults can appreciate with their children. It’s a tonal mess.
And yet, for all those weaknesses, The BFG has enough sweet moments that it feels a little bit churlish to be too critical of it. Spielberg’s heart seems to be in the right place, even if he is struggling to figure out how to express himself. As I watched the film, I felt bad about being so dismissive of what I had seen of Rylance’s performance in the commercials leading up the actual film. Rylance gives a heartfelt and warm performance, playing a giant who, because he is so nice, is bullied by even bigger giants.
As I said, I struggled to follow the film’s story. I knew that BFG had been forced to abduct an orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) because she saw him and he couldn’t risk her accidentally revealing his existence to the rest of the world. I also understood that BFG also had protect her from the other giants because the last child he befriended was eaten by those other giants. But then there was all this stuff about dream time and eventually, Queen Elizabeth II showed up and declared war on the evil giants and I was just so confused. For once, Spielberg’s skills as a story-teller fail him. It’s hard to believe that they same director who did the simple and economical Duel also did The BFG.
To be honest, the folks at Pixar, with their trademark mix of sentiment and subversion, would have been the ideal team to take on The BFG. Spielberg’s instincts are so resolutely mainstream that he doesn’t seem to understand how to best approach some of the story’s more “out there” elements. But that said, The BFG isn’t terrible. Mark Rylance does a really good job as the giant and, as you would expect from any Spielberg film, the film is undeniably visually impressive.
The BFG may not be great but it’s not awful.